The new seniors
Expect this year's junior class to make big impact throughout season
Posted: Wednesday November 10, 2004 11:56AM; Updated: Wednesday November 10, 2004 12:06PM
Of all the amazing things Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon did during Connecticut's run to the national championship last season, to many, the most remarkable was that they stayed as long as they did.
And they were only juniors.
"Everyone praised us," said Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun. "It was, 'They stuck around.'"
In this, the age of preps-to-pros and one-and-done, many around college basketball would agree that juniors have become the game's new seniors. And around the country, this season's junior class happens to be a particularly strong one.
Of the top-50 players in the high school class of 2002, as ranked by recruiting analyst Dave Telep, 40 have made it to their junior year, more than either of the previous two classes, and more than remain in the class below them (see chart). And of the 50 players chosen to the Wooden Award Preseason All-America Team (see second chart), 25 are juniors, the highest percentage in the past six years.
If, like North Carolina (Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May), Illinois (Dee Brown and Deron Williams) or Louisville (Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean), you're fortunate enough to have multiple junior stars -- guys who have started since day one -- then you, like Connecticut last season, may have the nucleus for a potential title run.
"I actually think if you have a strong junior class, that's the best possible scenario," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "In their senior year, guys who are on the threshold of making it [to the NBA] start getting preoccupied in their thoughts elsewhere more than concerning themselves with the present. The junior class is the perfect age."
Felton and McCants were rated by Telep as two of the top five players in the country coming out of high school in '02. (May wasn't far behind at ninth.) The other three -- Amare Stoudamire, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh -- were gone by the end of their freshman season or sooner.
Amazingly, at least by modern-day standards, the rest of the class is largely intact. Scan down the list, and you'll find such active stars as Michigan State's Paul Davis, Duke's Shelden Williams, Indiana's Bracey Wright and Florida's Anthony Roberson. On the one hand, part of the reason they're still in college is because they haven't developed as quickly as, say, Luol Deng or Kris Humphries, similarly-rated players from the class of '03 who have already become first-round picks.
But taking longer to develop isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly for their college teams, whose coaches find it increasingly difficult to cultivate experience and stability while still recruiting elite players.
"Francisco Garcia could have been a high draft choice last year, probably in the 20s. He's the best wing player I've ever coached," said Pitino. "But he's done it the right way. He knew he had to work on his body to become a good pro. When he goes into the pros, he'll be physically ready."
Times have changed to the point that when you mention a junior like Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, who as a freshman hit six 3-pointers in the first half of the 2003 national championship game, or Duke's J.J. Redick, one of the nation's most recognizable players, it's hard to believe they've only been in college for two years. "In some ways it feels like I've been here half my life," said McNamara. "Yet at the same time, it's only my junior year of college."
There's no question coaches view their juniors as seasoned veterans.
"They are completely exposed," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of his star-studded trio. "The junior guys have been through the tournaments, the road trips, the ups and downs, they've been through the ACC [twice]. The only thing they lack is that urgency of a senior who knows it's his last chance."
Williams' team is perhaps the best example of the benefits of keeping a nucleus together for three years. Viewed as the saviors of a program that had bottomed out (8-20) the year prior to their arrival, as freshmen Felton, McCants and May were part of a young team that went to the NIT. While McCants averaged 17 points, Felton struggled with his shot, and May missed all but 11 games with a broken foot.
All three made significant strides as sophomores, with McCants leading the ACC in scoring and May and Felton earning second and third-team All-conference respectively, as the Tar Heels reached the NCAA second round. Now, with all three back for a third go-around -- a prospect that seemed unlikely when they first arrived -- as well as seniors Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel, UNC is an extremely experienced team that many feel is capable of reaching the Final Four and beyond.
"Raymond and Rashad have both probably had the opportunity where they could have put their name in [the draft], but I'm glad they're both still here. It's great for our chemistry," said May. "We've been through everything together college players can."
Williams, for one, is banking on them to become this year's equivalent of Okafor and Gordon, who made the jump from the Sweet 16 as sophomores to the national title as juniors.
"Successful experience is much more important than plain experience," said the Tar Heels' coach. "UConn, the leadership they got from those guys was incredible -- they'd been through so many battles, they were so much more experienced, they could handle any short periods of adversity."
In a different time, you might have thought he was talking about seniors.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.